Posts Tagged ‘Life’

A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Memoir

May 24, 2011

All my life, people have told me I should write a book.

My first short stories were potboilers about cheating dogs and doggie love triangles. No, really. My first short story, at 8, was about a trio of German Shepherds named King, Queenie & Jackie, with Queenie and Jackie vying for King’s affections. This is what happens when a chubby girl with an overactive imagination combines her love of the family pet with stories overheard from gossipy neighbors. 

In college, my Anecdotal Writing professor told me I had book material and even offered to work with me to shape it into a memoir. I thought he was crazy. Those were just some stories about my crazy family. But everyone’s got a crazy family. Why would anyone want to read about mine?

Besides, no one was writing “memoir” back then. It was called “autobiography” and only famous people wrote them.

When I began blogging about parenting and started my own self- titled blog, people said, “I enjoy your writing. So where’s the book?”

So after 20+ years of hearing, “you should write a book,” I decided, “You know? They’re right!”

And I had all these great stories about my family and kids and ex-boyfriends already written. All I’d have to do is flesh out the family life, add a bit about the awful marriage, end on a happy note with newfound love, and I’d be done.

Then people started opting out of my life story.

The first was my sister. She had been one of the most vocal proponents of “you should write a book” until I wrote a post that mentioned, in passing, something about her. Some moment where our experiences crossed.

“Don’t write about my life,” was the terse private message I received after that post.

I didn’t write about her life. I wrote about my life. Except…I do have five siblings. Three brothers and two sisters. Writing about my childhood will be a bit challenging if I don’t get to mention at least something about being the youngest of six.

I don’t have to tell you about the paths their lives have taken. Those are not my stories to tell.

But if I’m telling a story about riding the Bob-Lo Boat to Bob-Lo Island as a child, it’ll be hard to tell that story without mentioning who I was on the boat with. Perhaps I should only mention the stories where my sister looks really smart and I’m just the dumb little sister. That might work.

Next was…well, I can’t tell you that. I’m not supposed to mention anything about my current r___________. What’s a r___________? I can’t tell you, but this video may give you a clue:

But I can’t talk about it. Not on my blog. Not in my memoir. So much for ending on a happy note.

So it seems the only relationships I can discuss in the book are the failed ones: the marriage and the high – or low – lights of those that preceded it.

And I’ve got some great failed relationship stories.

A friend suggested I avoid complaints from the subjects of those great stories by saying each one of them had a small penis.

I was thinking the opposite. I should give them all large penises. Maybe if I Super Size all my exes, they’ll be so flattered they won’t complain about whatever else it is I might have to say about them.

But I guess I’ll have to allude to the happy ending by way of lessons learned.

Which may not be such a bad thing. A lot can happen between writing and publication. And perhaps it’s best not to write about anyone until they’ve been a part of my life for a minimum of ten years.

In the meantime, I’ll be over here, trying to figure out how to tell the story of my life in isolation. Wish me luck.

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When Negative Is Positive

April 8, 2011

First of all, the good news: my biopsy results were fine. “Your results were fine, no problems, everything looks ok,” the radiologist told me when I called.

I thought about ending this post there.

But I still have a bandage on my breast. I still have the image of watching a needle poke into some weird thing inside my breast seared into my brain.

So let me describe the procedure.

I arrived at the Women’s Imaging Center at Weill Cornell Medical Center on time for my 9 am appointment. Outwardly, I was calm. My efforts to think positive thoughts had convinced me that this was some kind of divine comedic error, yet another example of God’s Monty Python-like sense of humor.

Things happened quickly. Within 15 minutes of my arrival, I was lying on my back in a hospital gown on a table in the ultrasound room.

In the two weeks since my mammogram, an odd thing had happened: I was no longer able to feel the lump. I had convinced myself, therefore, that the thing – whatever it was – had disappeared.

I mentioned to the ultrasound tech that I could no longer feel the lump. She nodded and applied the gel to the ultrasound wand, and began moving it around on my breast. I was about to ask her, “What happens if you can’t see it anymore?” when she said,

“Oh! There it is. I definitely see it. And these pictures look exactly like the ones that __________ got last time.”

So much for it disappearing.

And then I got scared.

During my last visit, I had peeked at the ultrasound screen, but none of what I saw made sense. I was reminded of my pregnancy ultrasounds, where I could discern the baby’s head, spine and heartbeat, but not much else.

This time, I saw it clearly.

The it, the thing, the lump that was causing all this trouble appeared on the ultrasound screen as a gelatinous bubble, like the movie The Blob. I had a Blob inside me. Of course, in the movie, the Blob consumed whatever was in its path.

I reminded myself that The Blob was a silly movie about killer Jello. But I couldn’t take my eyes off that screen.

The procedure I had is called an ultrasound-guided needle biopsy. A nurse and a doctor soon joined the ultrasound technician. While the ultrasound technician showed the doctor the pictures she had captured on screen, the nurse cleaned my breast for the procedure.

Everyone – doctors, nurse, ultrasound technician – was great about explaining to me what was happening, in terms that were simple but not dumbed down. I watched the doctor use a long, fine needle to fill my breast with Lidocaine so I wouldn’t feel any pain during the biopsy. I watched her insert a second thicker, hollow needle into my breast. She showed me the needle’s spring mechanism and explained that she would be activating the needle with a loud pop! sound to collect tissue samples, a process that would be repeated 5 times.

To my surprise, the doctor also announced that she would implant a small titanium clip into my breast to mark the location of the mass, since it was so subtle and not easy to detect, for the benefit of future radiologists. I didn’t like the idea of a titanium anything in my breast, but I gave my consent.

And then I turned my attention to the ultrasound screen.

I watched the needle probing and poking the blob. I saw the needle tip penetrate the mass. Even before the doctor gave me the “one-two-three” warning that she was about to activate the spring-loaded mechanism, I held my breath in anticipation.

I didn’t flinch.

“You’re doing great,” I was reassured, over and over again.

Inside, I wasn’t doing so great. I was overwhelmed by the odd and unsettling miracle of watching a needle enter my breast and cut away tiny pieces of some unidentifiable thing inside my breast.

It dawned on me that, no matter who you are in life, at some point, you will wind up in one of these hospital gowns, submitting your body to some procedure or another, hoping to discover that for you, life continues.

I couldn’t conceive of any other result. My children have no one but me. Their father is, um, unreliable. Their grandmother is gone. The family they know is in Michigan, where my children don’t want to be. They barely know their relatives in Philadelphia. And I am no longer as close as I once was to the women who were their godmothers.

The radiologist commended me for being so “good” throughout the procedure. I thought only about not orphaning my children.

My breast was a bit sore after the anesthesia wore off, but physically I was fine. Mentally and emotionally, though, the three-day wait for results was torture. I kept myself busy to keep from dwelling on it, but the bandage on my breast reminded me that, in the words of Madeline’s Miss Clavel, something was “not right.”

And now I know. The negative result is positive. I am relieved.

OK and fine do not, however, mean everything is back to “normal.”

For me, there is a new “normal.”

From now on, I will have a titanium clip in my breast. I will need to be diligent and consistent about getting annual mammograms. The breast biopsy joins the growing list of procedures and surgeries I have had recently, a list that replaces the “none” or “N/A” I used to routinely tick off on medical history questionnaires.

But still – I’m fine.

I’ll take it.

Facebook Friending Ghosts of the Past

January 18, 2011

A few weeks ago, I received a Facebook friend request from a man I’d known in college.

Someone I’d avoided for most of my college years.

It wasn’t always that way. [Name Redacted, or NR for short] was smart, funny and charming. And attractive. He was built like a linebacker, big and tall. We girls wondered if NR was big and tall all over.

I decided to find out.

After weeks of flirtation, one night NR invited me to his room. There was alcohol. There was an attempt – a fumbled, bungled and ultimately unsuccessful attempt. Equipment failure played a major factor.

There was the late night walk of shame back to my side of the dorm.

And the next day and the weeks that followed, there were the rumors of how wild I was, what a freak I was, how NR had been all up in that.

The big, baggy shirts I liked to wear at night provided unexpected grist for the rumor mill. I had taken a few of my father’s old shirts to college. At night, I would don one of Daddy’s shirts over a pair of shorts or sweatpants.

I was wearing shorts under one of Daddy’s shirts the night I went to NR’s room. Of course, the rumor mill said I went to NR’s room wearing just the shirt, with no pants or panties underneath.

I never knew if NR initiated the rumors or just went along with everyone else’s assumptions. I could have ruined his reputation by disclosing the equipment failure issue. But I just wanted to forget the whole thing. 

The rumor mill wasn’t about to let that happen. Thanks to the rumors, I started getting all sorts of unwanted attention from NR’s boys.

One of NR’s boys, however, appeared sympathetic. He claimed not to believe what everyone was saying about me. He invited me to his room to talk, and I tearfully confessed what really happened, and didn’t happen, with NR — all the embarrassing details.

Sympathy Guy claimed to be upset and angry about NR’s lies. He pretended to be a friend, a big brother.

And then Sympathy Guy raped me. He forced me to perform oral sex on him that night. I will never forget the gagging, choking, spitting; the feeling like I’d never breathe again. I felt lucky he didn’t force intercourse as well. I begged him to let me leave, and he did.

Although I didn’t press charges, I didn’t keep quiet about what Sympathy Guy had done. The rumor mill got the word out. I guess not even a ho deserved that.

I steered clear of NR, Sympathy Guy — the whole lot of them — from then on. Thanks to them, I also learned to stay out of men’s dorm rooms at night.

Although I can’t hold NR responsible for what Sympathy Guy did, they are forever linked in my thoughts. Sympathy Guy’s flawed logic went like this:

a) According to his boy NR, I was a ho.

b) A ho could be had, without the need to question whether she wants it or not. Either she always wants it, because she’s a ho, or it doesn’t matter whether or not she wants it, because she’s a ho. Therefore, he was entitled to shove his penis down my throat.

When I got NR’s friend request, I thought about accepting it, as a symbol of forgiveness. NR had made a stupid, young adult mistake. His lies led to Sympathy Guy raping me, but I couldn’t say he was the cause of the rape. And anyway, it all happened such a long time ago.

Furthermore, what does being Facebook friends really mean, anyway? I have over 600 Facebook friends, and communicate with less than 100 of them. Accepting NR’s friend request wouldn’t mean we have to actually become friends.

On the other hand, forgiving NR doesn’t require me to feel differently about what he did. NR let people think we’d had some kind of wild, crazy sex rather than admitting we didn’t have sex at all. I have a right to still feel some kind of way about that.

Forgiving NR also doesn’t mean I have to allow him access to me and my contacts — or expose myself to his. For all I know, NR and Sympathy Guy might still be connected, and Sympathy Guy is someone I have no desire to hear from ever again.

No matter how insignificant Facebook can be, it’s still a level of access to my personal life that I have the right to control.

While I mulled it all over, the friend request disappeared.

If NR tries to friend me again, perhaps I’ll link him to this post. I’m not seeking an apology. I’m not even sure an apology would change how I feel. His friend request reminded me of an unpleasant and painful learning experience.

My own daughter is only 4 years younger than I was when I had my encounters with NR and Sympathy Guy. I will share this story with her, in hopes that she can learn from her mom’s mistakes.

And if NR and Sympathy Guy have daughters, I hope they teach them to avoid young men who are like the young men they each used to be.

Upgrade Him? Girl, No

July 25, 2010

I was chatting recently with one of my law school friends about a classmate of ours whose marriage was ending in divorce.

At first I thought it was regular gossip about another seemingly happy marriage falling apart.  But as my friend filled in more of the details, I understood it was, instead, yet another example of the Negro Improvement Plan gone wrong.

And as my friend and I are veterans of the Negro Improvement Plan Gone Wrong War, we clucked our tongues and sent up prayers for what we both know lies ahead for this woman in her efforts to divorce her low-income spouse.

“Negro Improvement Plan” is a term coined by my friend Stephanie to describe the phenomenon we began witnessing as one woman after another from our Harvard Law School class partnered up with lower income men.  The men were never just the construction workers, secretaries, mailroom guys, etc. they appeared to be.  Inevitably, he was “going back to school.”  In the rare cases where he wasn’t going back to school, he was starting a business.  Or he was a producer — for artists no one had ever heard of. 

The Negro Improvement Plan meant there was a plausible and legitimate reason for these Harvard-trained women lawyers to be marrying their Mr. Blue Collars.  He was going places.  He just needed a boost.  And his loyal, loving woman was going to be just the boost he needed to take him where he should go.

When more of us, including Stephanie and me, embarked on our own versions of the Negro Improvement Plan, we didn’t recognize that we had just joined the same club we had been so scornful of. 

The Negro Improvement Plan wasn’t always about trying to force the man into some sort of career change.  My ex was a construction worker when I met him.  I liked the sound of that, and was disappointed he didn’t stay in construction when I moved him into my Brooklyn apartment.  He decided he’d rather be working in an office, and I was OK with that, too.  I didn’t try to influence his career choices too much.

But from the day he moved to New York until the day he moved out of my Harlem brownstone, I rode him relentlessly for the way he mangled the English language, the fact that his subjects and verbs never agreed and his vocabulary was a bit “too street.”  He was a grown man from North Philly who had been speaking like a North Philly gangsta pretty much all his life, and he was very comfortable with how he spoke.  His friends were comfortable with how he spoke.  I was the only one who had a problem with it.  I told myself it was because I wanted my daughter to learn “correct English.”  I wasn’t honest enough to admit it was my issue and no one else’s.

I tried to upgrade my ex-husband’s grammar and vocabulary.  Other friends tried to upgrade their men similar to Beyonce’s “Upgrade U,” by putting them in Hickey Freeman suits, Pink shirts, Rolex watches and BMWs.  They tried to slot their blue collar men into their Pottery Barn worlds of 600-thread count Egyptian cotton sheets, towels folded just so, a utensil for every kitchen-related purpose, and Jack and Jill for the children.

Stephanie had once snarked, “I guess he got tired of being bougie,” after one of our classmates’ marriages to a lower-income man fell apart.  But, as it turned out, Stephanie’s Negro Improvement Plan was the classic career changing  one.  She tried to turn her man into a small business owner.  The business failed, in part because her partner wasn’t a reliable employee of his own so-called business.

In all cases, including mine, the men enjoyed the perks of the upgrade efforts — the cars, the suits, the trips, the real estate — until they figured out their women expected those changes to be lasting.  My ex knew how to speak properly.  He was also very well-read.  Thanks to my nagging, he would correct his grammar in the presence of our children, but whenever I dragged him to some law firm function, he would reach deep in his storehouse of Ebonics and entertain my law partners, to my horror and frustration.  I was furious with him for deliberately fitting neatly into the stereotypes I assumed “they” held of “us.”

Once, I actually listened, and discovered he was carrying on an intelligent conversation, despite the Ebonics, with one of my partners and his wife about U.S. drug enforcement policy.  Later, the wife told me, “Your husband is a very smart man.”  I never knew if that was a genuine compliment, or if she was surprised to hear rational arguments coming from someone who spoke so poorly, like a dog sitting down to the piano and playing Mozart.

My ex-husband called me controlling, which I resented.  In hindsight, I realize most of our issues stemmed from a battle for control.  He already felt emasculated by my position and salary.  The fact that I would snark on his grammar was probably just a bit too much for him to stomach.  Embarrassing me at my law firm functions was his way of getting back at me.

It’s insulting and demoralizing to treat a man like, as my friend @HarlemWriter put it, stray animals or shelter rescues you can return when they soil the rug or chew on your pricey shoes.  You can’t change your mate.  You are supposed to love your mate as he is.  If you can’t do that, you are with the wrong partner.  Period.

Bottom line: leave the upgrading to Beyonce. 

And for the record, she didn’t have to upgrade her man, either.

My First Haters

May 31, 2010

 

I’ve always been opinionated, and I’m not shy about expressing my opinions, whether in a real-life discussion or on my blog.  I suppose it was inevitable, therefore, that some of my posts would rub some people the wrong way.

That doesn’t bother me.  I’m all for spirited debate.  Except . . . I haven’t gotten any.

It seems some of the people who disliked my posts, in particular the one about men, or the one about celebrity divorce settlements, chose not to post comments on my blog.  They also chose not to debate me on Twitter or Facebook, where I usually post my newest blog posts.

What they did choose to do was make cowardly ad hominem attacks on Twitter.

I’ve gotten one or two “you’re divorced, right? figures” comments on this blog.  I haven’t thought much of them.  What exactly does it figure?  Figures that I, a divorced woman, would be interested in the subject of divorce? 

Or does it “figure” that I’m divorced because I’m a bitter, unlovable hag, as evidenced by my writing and my opinions?

Apparently I’m supposed to believe the latter.

Sorry, but no.  Anyone else who wants to believe that about me, believe away.  And feel free to believe, based on a few blog posts and tweets, that you know all you need to know about my marriage and my divorce.  As long as I write about divorce and custody issues, I guess it’s understandable that people would try to construct a story about my own divorce.  Until and unless I choose to publish my divorce story, good luck with that.

I’m just disappointed that the people in question chose to resort to personal attacks, instead of making rational counter-arguments to the positions with which they disagreed. 

In the end, though, I’m pleased that people are reading and reacting to what I write.  Thanks to everyone who visits my blog and read my posts.  Whether you agree or disagree, I appreciate your readership. 

I do not, however, tolerate personal attacks, on me or any of my commenters.  As long as you keep it respectful, debate away.

A Good Woman – Part I

April 18, 2010

The day after my mother’s funeral, her baby sister,  my Aunt Mary, said to her grieving nieces:

“Well, your Mama sure had her ways, but couldn’t nobody say that Lennie wasn’t a good woman.”

We all nodded.  Mama most definitely had her ways, but the fact that she was a good woman was undeniable. 

I’ve thought about my aunt’s comment from time to time since my mom passed:

What made Mama a good woman?

Was it her unshakeable faith, her complete and utter devotion to the Lord?  Perhaps.  Mama was a Christian, but she was no church Christian.  She didn’t play church politics well at all.  In fact, she told me she was not-so-politely asked to leave her prayer group at her home church; she said it was because she was constantly challenging the group leader’s understanding of the Bible (of course, my mom was right and they were wrong).  Although her funeral was held at her home church, she hadn’t actually been inside it in years.

Mama called herself a student of the Bible.  We counted at least 30 bibles among her possessions, most of them ordered from the TV preachers she took to following when she stopped going to church.  She was not a Biblical scholar, but she had practically memorized the Bible.  She had committed her favorite passages to memory, and her recall didn’t diminish even as other parts of her memory began to fail. 

She gave, or tried to give, each of us a Bible.  She gave me two — a NIV translation, because I told her I preferred the NIV to the King James, and a Bible that had both the NIV and the King James texts side by side.  She must have been amused when, about a week before she died, I started quoting Scripture to her, using it to try to get her to consent to the medical treatment she had refused.

Mama was a good woman because she couldn’t stand to see people suffer.  It never ceased to amaze me — and, admittedly, sometimes disgusted me as well — the way she would feed the men and women who had been children with us, the ones who hadn’t done well enough to leave the block, many of them now mired in drug and alcohol addictions.  My mother hated to see people go hungry, especially children.  She was always sending a plate of food, whatever she had cooked that day, to families on the block.

We had neighbors who would come to her yard with buckets to draw water from the outside tap as if it were a well, because their water had been shut off.  I was outdone. 

Mama said, “They have children in that house.  They can’t be in that house with children and no water.”  And when I said too much in protest, she let me know it was her house, her water bill and her decision.   She never stopped doing what she could for the people in our neighborhood, until the day she died. 

We worried that people were taking advantage of an old lady living on a fixed income.  We feared that one of those people would decide to press that advantage by breaking into her home and robbing her, or worse.  Mama pooh-poohed us all.  She refused to leave her home, even when a stray bullet lodged itself in the wall just above her bed.  The neighborhood people never tried to harm her, and grieved her loss as deeply as the family did.

My mother was a good woman, but she was no saint.  As my aunt said, she had her ways.  She could be petty and small-minded.  She had a tongue that could cut you deep.  She always knew where the soft spot was, how deep to stick the knife and how far to twist it.  She defined stubbornness.  Once she had made up her mind about something, there was nothing — no logic, no reasoning, no nothing — that could change her mind.  She was as petulant as a two-year-old when she didn’t get her way.

All of those things mean she was human. 

But she was a good woman.

Mama raised us girls to be good women.  We were taught to cover our bosoms and our behinds, to close our legs and open our minds.  We were encouraged to be outspoken, independent, self-reliant.  She had seen first-hand how being financially dependent on a man could backfire, and wanted none of that for us.  As kids, we hadn’t been allowed to socialize with the people she wound up taking care of in her old age, after we moved away and they were left behind, struggling.  We were taught to comport ourselves with decorum, to treat others with respect, to associate with other good people, and to never give up on ourselves.

She was disgusted by Monica Lewinsky and would have been horrified by Rielle Hunter and Kiely Williams.  To her, a woman who used sex to get ahead was a prostitute, period.  Her insistence that looks were irrelevant, that only brains mattered, was so extreme that it seems only my oldest sister Cheryl knew she had any looks to trade upon, but it worked.  I may question her methods, but I can’t argue with the results.

I’m not a good woman in the same way that my mother was.  I’m not trying to feed the hungry in my neighborhood.  I consider myself a Christian, but some of my views of Christianity would shock and perhaps disappoint my mother.  I worry whether I have energy to fight the NYC Department of Education for my kids, the way she fought the Detroit Public Schools system to ensure that I received the best free public education I possibly could. 

And yet, I think I qualify.  I’m open-hearted and caring.  I believe everyone, from CEOs of multi-national conglomerates to the homeless, deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.  I often decry the lack of civility in our discourse with each other, especially as people interact more and more with people they do not know personally via social media.   And while I try to get my daughter to feel good about herself inside and out, both beauty and brains, I’m an old-fashioned stickler for necklines up, hemlines down, knees together.

My mother lived long enough to see the type of woman I’ve become.  I’m pretty confident she approved.

John Mayer and the Magic Vagina

February 11, 2010

By now, John Mayer has been hashed and re-hashed to death, his “David Duke cock” and “nigger pass” comments analyzed from nearly every angle.  Except one.  While most people have focused on the racial aspect of Mayer’s statements, few have focused on Mayer’s remarks about women, sex and relationships. 

Take, for example, his comments about Jessica Simpson, his off-and-on companion for 10 months.  Mayer spoke at length about having sex with Simpson.  He referred to sex with Simpson as “a drug,” specifically “crack cocaine,” and said that their sex was “sexual napalm.”  

Strikingly, although he said a lot about having sex with Simpson, he said nothing about her.  Although it was a bit déclassé for Mayer to expose details of his sex life with Simpson, it wasn’t shocking — it’s a Playboy interview, after all.  And almost everyone I know has some sexual napalm in their past.  The problem is, in reference to Jessica Simpson, Mayer spoke about nothing else.  It’s as if she didn’t exist for him as a person beyond the amazing sex.

This is nothing new for the juvenile and emotionally stunted Mayer, who once listed “a vagina you can just camp out on…the Joshua Tree of vaginas” as one of the key qualities in a potential mate.  His remarks about Simpson reminded me of a comment (from a man) that showed up in my Twitter feed well before Mayer’s Playboy interview became public:

“Once a weak brother gets a taste of some powerful punanny, his ass will kill 4 his next hit.. Its Heroin 4 his ass.” 

Like Mayer, this man used the language of addiction to describe the power of a woman’s sexual attractiveness.  And as Mayer said, “drugs aren’t good for you if you do lots of them.”  Addictions are unhealthy — scary, dangerous and life-threatening.  Addictions make people weak, because they will do anything to secure their next fix. 

But according to the tweet, only a weak man is unable to resist becoming addicted to the powerful punnany.    By likening the vagina to a drug, a man can enjoy getting high off the good stuff, as long as he doesn’t form any lasting emotional attachment.  In fact, objectifying the vagina makes it easier for the man to insulate himself from emotional attachment.

Women tend not to understand that (some) men think this way.  Ashanti had a song, “Good Good,” where she boasted that her man would never leave her for another woman because she “put it on him right, every night.” 

I wouldn’t suggest any woman take relationship advice from an Ashanti song.  Having that good good, or as I like to call it, the magic vagina, may keep a man coming back for sex, but not much more.  If  the sex is habit-forming, a man who’s addicted eventually may decide he needs to break the habit.

Several years ago, I was involved in a brief but intense relationship.  The man was my sexual napalm and I was his crack cocaine.  He also had all the qualities — looks, intellect, sense of humor, shared goals and outlook on life — I wanted in a partner.  We got along great, in and out of bed.  I didn’t start ring shopping, but I did start thinking this man and I could have had a future together.  Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.  For years, I wondered why.

I ran into him again a few years ago.  The attraction was still there, dangerously so.  But he was married, and rekindling the old flames was not an option.  Nevertheless, we met for drinks, and finally talked about our past history. 

He was kind, but spoke of our sexual chemistry with a mix of awe and fear.  I suddenly understood why he hadn’t viewed me as a potential partner.  For him, I had been the magic vagina.  And he had been addicted.  The lies and half-truths he told — including the “I love you’s” — were his way of paying the dealer (me) to maintain his supply.  He had enjoyed using, but was now happy to be clean.

He made no mention of any of the things that I had always thought made us so compatible.  For me, the great sex was a sign of compatibility, reinforced by the time we spent together.  For him, the wining and dining and first class treatment were means to an end.  I was the Five Star Jump Off — the one you take to restaurants with Michelin stars instead of McDonald’s, but a jump off still the same.  I was grateful to know why it hadn’t worked, but saddened at the same time.

Mayer touches on how good sex can lead to misguided feelings in his Playboy interview:

MAYER: Here’s what I really want to do at 32: fuck a girl and then, as she’s sleeping in bed, make breakfast for her. So she’s like, “What? You gave me five vaginal orgasms last night, and you’re making me a spinach omelet? You are the shit!” So she says, “I love this guy.” I say, “I love this girl loving me.” And then we have a problem. Because that entails instant relationship. I’m already playing house. And when I lose interest she’s going to say, “Why would you do that if you didn’t want to stick with me?” 

There are lessons for both men and women in all of this.  No one, especially women, should mistake great sex for love.  A guy who can make you come five times in one night is . . . a guy who can make you come five times in one night.  If he makes you the best spinach omelet the next morning, that just means he can cook.  Even if he says the “L” word, be careful — if there are other warning signs, he may just be loving you loving him.  If it’s just great sex without any real commitment, it’s probably best to leave the great sex alone.

Easier said than done, I know.

Life, Love and Up in the Air

January 4, 2010

It’s been a long time since a movie made me think about life, love, loneliness and mortality.  Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air” did.

George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, who works as a career termination consultant.  His company is retained by other companies to fire the employees they don’t have the balls to fire.

(Although the job is presented in the movie as being rather distasteful, it actually sounds like a great idea to me. Firing people is difficult, tricky business, and most managers completely botch it.  Many terminated employees would be better off in the hands of a professional firm.)

Clooney’s character is so good at his job because he has almost no emotional attachments. He is a committed bachelor. He spends most of the year traveling. He buys ties at the airport Brooks Brothers outpost. He fits everything into one rolling carry-on suitcase.  His apartment even looks more like a Residence Inn-type hotel room.

The theme song of this movie should have been Erykah Badu’s “Bag Lady.”

Eventually, of course, he meets a woman, Alex (the stunning Vera Farmiga), with whom he shares an instant kinship. She is a fellow traveler, living in and out of airports. The relationship starts as an on-the-road convenience, but Ryan comes to want more. Clooney and Farmiga have a easy, believable chemistry that makes you root for their budding romance, as improbable and doomed as it seems.

A subplot about Ryan’s sister’s wedding injects a good deal of humor into the story and allows Clooney to deliver the movie’s knockout line and ultimate theme: “Life is better with company.”

That line resonates as the movie progresses to its uncertain conclusion, and long after the credits have rolled.

It’s a simple and unavoidable truth. Life is better with company.

“Life is better with company” explains why people stay in bad friendships, relationships and marriages. It explains why people have a hard time letting go of their kids. Why they spend a fortune caring for their sick and dying pets. Why end of life care is such a tough subject.  Why divorce statistics fail to tell the true picture of what is wrong and what is right with the institution of marriage.

It is hard to let go of people. It is hard choosing to be alone.

I should know.

I stayed in a bad relationship for more than eight years. I married my ex-husband four-and-a-half years into that bad relationship, even though it wasn’t working before we got married, and I knew deep in my heart it was never going to work out.

I didn’t love my ex-husband. He wasn’t good company. He belittled every thing I cared about. He criticized everything I did, or tried to do. We fought constantly, physically on occasion.

And yet I stayed with him, had another child by him, married him seven days before that second child was born, because I could not stand to be one of the few black female partners at a major law firm and yet, just a “baby momma.”  I hated not being married to the father of my two kids, even though I didn’t think he was good husband material.  I believed that it would be harder to raise those children alone than with company, even bad company.

If he had been able to be just a little bit nicer — just a little bit kinder — I would still be with him today.

Of course, I was wrong. And of course, it didn’t work. Before my son’s 3rd birthday, we had an Amazing Race to the courthouse to file divorce papers. He beat me by two weeks — including the extra week it took to convert my complaint into an answer and counterclaim.

I have been single ever since our separation.  I did not date during our separation, in part because he had accused me of infidelity, and I didn’t want to give that lie any substantiation.

I did not date for many years after our divorce, because somewhere deep inside, I believed everything he had said about me for most of our relationship: that I was fat, unattractive, stupid, unworthy of my Harvard Law School degree, a bad mother, bad in bed, just undesirable on every level.

I don’t blame him for the fact that I internalized the things he said. I didn’t have to. I chose to. I consumed his steady diet of negative comments and failed to counter them with positive, self-affirming beliefs. In litigation, expert testimony generally is deemed pretty credible. When my ex-husband made comments about my appearance and desirability, I gave them the weight of expert testimony. 

Somewhere inside,  I said to myself, “Well, he’s a man, he would know whether or not I’m desirable. So it must be true.”

But it’s been five years since my divorce.  In that time, I lost a lot of weight (even though I could have viewed myself as desirable with or without the extra pounds). I got a new job and regained confidence in my abilities as a lawyer. I began writing again on a more regular basis, and felt empowered by the positive feedback I received from others.

And yet, in the five years since my divorce, I have remained single.  I do not date on a regular basis. I am not seeing anyone currently. I haven’t been in a relationship since I separated from my husband.

“Up in the Air” made me question why.

There have been times, many times, where I’ve found myself saying to myself, “I don’t need a relationship. I’m not lonely. I’ve got these kids in the house with me. That’s more than enough company.

“I do all I can to escape them to find some alone time. The last thing I need is some man making demands on my time.”

Some days, I really believe this.  I am not at the Ryan Bingham level of detachment, but I do feel even the best love/sex relationships can be burdensome. And I agree that less-than-ideal relationships are excess baggage better off discarded. You really can move a lot more easily and freely through life if you heed Erykah Badu’s advice and “pack light.”

As a mom, I miss my alone time. The kids don’t respect my privacy. They barge into my room day and night. They get into my bed and try to stay there all night. My daughter goes into my closet at will and tries on my clothes, my shoes, my boots, my coats.

When I do manage to carve out some private space, I hold it dearly and protect it fiercely.

I am not sure I want to share that rare private space with another person.

Except — life is better with company.

I saw “Up in the Air” alone. Before the movie started, I smugly compared myself to the couples searching for two seats together in the crowded movie theater.  It was easy for me to buy a single ticket and find a single seat in the crowded theater. Watching a movie is such a singular, solitary experience, so why do people bother going to movies together, I wondered. Why go through all the hassle just to sit next to each other, silently watching a movie in the dark?  

After the movie ended, as we all filed out of the theater, people were discussing and even arguing over what the ending did or did not mean. I had my own thoughts on the subject and wanted to join one of those discussions, but couldn’t, because I’d gone alone. I was then reminded that the after-movie discussion is why people go to the movies on dates, or with friends or family. 

Being alone in that moment,  having just watched a movie about a man who wants to be with someone but who will probably wind up alone, made me feel sadder than I’ve felt in a long time.

Watching “Up in the Air” made me realize that being without a partner is a choice I’ve made.  It’s not because it’s so hard to find people to date and eventually be in a relationship with, despite the current “why can’t successful black women marry?” topic that has become so disturbingly popular in the media.

I’ve chosen to be alone, much as George Clooney’s character did in the movie, because for a while, it was easier to deal with life without carrying around the baggage of another person. After the divorce, as I worked at establishing myself in a new job and making a new home and a new life for myself and my children as a single parent, it simply was easier to do it alone.

But it’s not an irreversible choice.

At one point in “Up in the Air,” a character asks Ryan, about marriage, “What’s the point?” He answers, truthfully, that there is no “point.” Because it’s not like getting married and having the kids and the grandkids will change the ultimate outcome of your life.

We’re all going to die.

Life is short, and getting shorter by the day.

But everything that happens between birth and death is a choice. 

For years, I chose to be alone.

Perhaps now, it’s time for me to have some company on this journey.

Losing Mom

October 23, 2009

“This is the second big tragedy of the summer,” my eight-year-old son announced glumly, tears welling up in his eyes.

I was momentarily grateful for the thought patterns of an eight-year-old, which put a smile on my face for the first time all day.  I couldn’t fault my son for ranking the death of his grandmother second to the death of Michael Jackson as the summer’s worst tragedy.  Grandma didn’t have a Thriller video in her legacy.  But then, on the other hand, Michael Jackson couldn’t bake pies like Grandma.

For me, it’s no contest.  As my son later said, “This must be even harder for you, Mom, because Grandma was my grandma, but she was your mom.”

Indeed.

I got the call I had been dreading and anticipating and wishing away at about a quarter to 5 a.m. on August 14.  I knew it was bad news.  “No good news comes at this time of morning,” I muttered to myself as I awoke to answer the phone.  The only question in my mind was, was the bad news about Mom or my brother Greg?

“Carolyn, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but Mama died this morning,” my sister Cheryl said.

“Oh.  Okay.”

At least, that’s what I think I said.  I don’t remember what I actually said, or what we specifically talked about.  I understood that my brother Greg had found my mother in the dining room floor, unresponsive.  She had fallen out of her favorite chair at the table, the chair where she ate, received visitors, and sat to read her Bible every night.  Greg called my other siblings in the Detroit area and told everyone to “come, just come.”   Someone called 911.  The EMS medics pronounced her dead of a massive heart attack.  My oldest sister called me.

These are the facts as I know them.   I wasn’t there when my dad died, and I wasn’t there when my mom died.   My own selfish ambitions had taken me far away from the city of Detroit long before.  Somewhere deep inside, I feel just the tiniest bit of guilt about that.

I went upstairs and told my 12-year-old daughter, then gently extricated myself from her arms to go downstairs and tell my nephew, my second oldest sister’s son, who was visiting from Howard University. 

I decided not to tell my son until later.  It was his last day of baseball camp, and I saw no need to ruin his day.  I told him after he returned home from camp, after more of the details of the broad strokes of the day had been filled in, after I had accepted in my head but not my heart the truth behind those words:

Mama died.

My mother suffered her first heart attack in about March 2004, during her second and last visit to New York City.  She had come to help me.  My marriage was falling apart and my husband was erratic and unstable.  I was afraid of him and didn’t know who else to call. 

In the back of my head, I must have had a vision of my mother going to help my aunt get rid of her incorrigible husband many years ago.  Mama had packed her brother-in-law’s things in garbage bags, set the bags out on the front porch, locked the doors and put a huge pot of water on the stove to boil.  When he came home and demanded to be let in, my mother gave him two options: take his shit and get to steppin’, or force open the door and get a pot of boiling hot water thrown in his face.  He chose the first option and went to his mama’s house.

I don’t think I expected my mother to put a pot of water on the stove to boil for my ex.  Nor did I ask her to.  I did figure he’d stop acting like a madman with her around.   It never occurred to me to ask Mama how she was feeling, if she was up for the trip.  She offered to come and I accepted.

When I picked her up from LaGuardia Airport, I was startled a bit, as I had been in the last several years, to realize that this little old lady in the wheelchair was my mother.  I wasn’t used to thinking of her as old.  Mama had always been a giant, even though she was only 5′ 2″.  She was formidable and stubborn, with an iron will that could move mountains.  If Mama said it was so, then that’s how it was, or how it was going to be.  She had been more God to me in my childhood than the Holy Trinity combined.

As always, Mama was a little old lady until she started talking, and then she was back to just being Mom.  I drove her home, and she seemed fine.  She said she was hungry.  I hadn’t cooked.  My kitchen cabinets were pretty bare, but I did have a tin of sardines (but the good ones, packed in olive oil, OK?).  I offered her sardines and crackers, and she accepted.

A few minutes after she started eating, she ran to the bathroom.

I raised an eyebrow.  I hadn’t seen my mother run like that in decades.  I heard the sound of retching.

“Mom, are you OK?”

“I’m fine,” she said, and then I heard the sound of vomiting again.

Mom was on the floor, clutching the toilet, vomiting like I’d never seen before.  She told me the sardines must have given her heartburn. 

“I feel this pressure in my chest, and that’s what’s making me feel like I have to throw up,” she managed to explain before vomiting again.

I ran out of the bathroom and picked up the phone.  “Mom, I’m calling EMS,” I said.

“For what?”

“For you.”

“I don’t need no EMS.  This is just heartburn,” she protested.

“Then they’ll send you back home,” I said as the 911 operator began to take my information.

I am not a doctor, and had never heard heart attack symptoms described as pressure and nausea, but something in the questions the dispatcher asked — something in her tone — made a little thought enter my mind: “Mama’s having a heart attack.”

That little thought was confirmed when the EMT techs showed up and gave Mom a nitroglycerin tablet to put under her tongue.  By this time, my ex-husband had come downstairs to see what the commotion was all about.

“She’s having a heart attack,” he announced, even though the EMT techs hadn’t said anything.  “My mother had heart trouble.  I’ve seen this before.”

Shut up, I hissed at him in my head, but I said nothing.  There was no point in arguing with him and causing her additional distress.

But he had been right.  She was rushed to St. Luke’s/Roosevelt Hospital, and within two hours, she was in the cath lab, getting two stents implanted into her arteries to clear near-complete blockages. 

I found out later that Mom had been having symptoms all week before she boarded that plane.  She had been out of breath after walking a very short distance.  She had complained of “heartburn” and mild nausea all week.  She had her first heart attack within two hours after landing at LaGuardia Airport.  I shudder to think what would have happened if her flight had been delayed.

Back then, we were told she had achieved a good result.  She was treated just as her heart attack symptoms began, so there was little damage to the heart muscle.  She was advised to get a pacemaker, but she refused.  So she was advised to start a program of moderate exercise, change her diet, control her high blood pressure by taking her medication regularly, take the anti-cholesterol drug Plavix, and put herself under the regular care of a cardiologist when she returned home to Detroit.

Mom did . . . pretty much none of the above.  She kept frying her foods and cooking with salt.  She continued to refuse a pacemaker.  She stopped taking the Plavix.  She refused to take the new blood pressure medication she had been prescribed.  She saw her cardiologist a couple of times, and then stopped.  She tried walking around the block, but after a few outings, she realized she was too weak to do it alone.  She feared collapsing or being attacked by some thugs in the neighborhood who decided to prey on an old lady.  She sat in her favorite chair and rarely left the house.

And that was how she liked it.

I argued with my mom, begged her to go the doctor more often, implored her to listen to her doctors when she was hospitalized again three years later, and it was pretty clear things were not going in the right direction. 

(There was one final hospitalization prior to her death, but she was released with a bunch of prescriptions she never would have been able to take on her own, and she died at home, as she obviously wished.)

I wasn’t the only one, of course.  My sister Caroletta worked even harder to try to get Mom to do what we thought was the right thing.  Mom said and did just enough to shut us up, and then went right back to doing what she was going to do.

My mother’s will was unlike anything I have ever encountered from anyone else in my life, with the possible exception of my 12-year-old.  When she made her mind up to do something, there was no stopping her.  This was a woman who sat in the back of my elementary school classrooms to see and hear first-hand what and how I was being taught.  When she was dissatisfied, she would call the teacher out into the hallway to speak with her.  When that didn’t get the results she wanted, she went to the principal and threatened to go all the way to the school board.

(Did I mention I was an unpopular kid in elementary school?  You’re not surprised, are you?)

Mom fought for me to get a great education in a mediocre Detroit public elementary school.  She somehow coerced my notoriously cheap father into sending me to Catholic school for 8th grade, because she worried I was succuumbing to the negative influences of the bad neighborhood middle school. 

I tricked her a bit for high school, by failing to tell her I’d gotten accepted to the Catholic high school she wanted to send me to, so that I could go to Cass Technical High School, Detroit’s top citywide public high school, instead.  But by then, she didn’t have to fight for me anymore.  She believed in me so much that I was more than a bit cocky when it came to academic achievement.  I’d learned from the master how to fight for myself.

My mother also was a woman of incredible talent.  Her vegetable garden was the stuff of legend, where everything grew and nothing ever died.  (We used to joke that Mom’s garden was the real Pet Sematary, but we were too afraid to bury a dead thing there to test out that theory for real.)  She made pies — as recently as a month before her death — that were better than any restaurant — “store-bought,” as she said with disdain — pie I’ve ever eaten.  Because of her — and my father, but mostly her — I made it from the “hood” to Harvard Law School, to partner of one of the country’s most prestigious law firms and vice president of one of the world’s premier cosmetics companies.

And it bothers me to no end that she never turned that iron will on herself, and willed herself to live, instead of allowing herself to die.

Since her next-to-last hospitalization, I would periodically dream about getting that phone call, hearing those words — “Mama died.”  And then I would immediately wake myself up, thinking, “That’s silly.  Mama’s not dead.”  I wish I could wake up and find out this was still a dream, that I could just call Mama and hear her voice and assure myself that she was truly, 100% alive.

I know better, but I still wish.

I used to think of Mama as a series of contradictions.  She used to infuriate me because I couldn’t make sense of some of her decisions, including her decision to refuse medical treatment and accept the risk of a massive cardiac arrest.  Since her death, I’ve been consumed by trying to resolve those surface contradictions to find the common thread.  For example: Mama was an excellent cook and would prepare meals for people for free, but never took up the suggestion that she could open a restaurant or catering business of her own.   She made all my clothes until I was in middle school and decided I was too old to still wear “hand-made” clothes.  She would give our neighbor, who ran a tailoring business out of her home, advanced sewing tips, but she wouldn’t try to get business of her own. 

She was a snob extraordinaire, but not in the usual sense.  She was not impressed by money, or people with money, or the things they possessed.  She taught us that class had nothing at all to do with wealth, and that there were plenty of people with money who lacked class, and vice versa.  She wouldn’t let us associate with the classless, regardless of income or family net worth. 

Yet she couldn’t stand to see people go hungry.  The same people we were not allowed to play or associate with as children, grew up to be the adults, the neighborhood drunks and winos and crackheads, who she fed and whose children she fed, because it wasn’t the childrens’ fault that their parents put their substance abuse ahead of their children.  She leveraged all of her talents for the care of her family, and when we were gone, she took care of the people in the neighborhood, the struggling adults who had been children with her children, and who became like her surrogate children.

I’m no longer as angry with my mother as I was when she died.  I was angry with her because I had convinced myself that her death was due to her stubbornness, that it was avoidable, that she could have been with us many, many more years had she only cooperated, acquiesced, done as she was told.  As I type those words, I am reminded of the beginning of the Book of Ecclesiastes:  “Meaningless!  Meaningless!  says the Teacher.  Utterly meaningless!  Everything is meaningless.”  On one hand, I wonder — what difference does another five, ten, fifteen years make, compared to the eternity that you spend in death? 

On the other hand — in five years, her youngest great-grandchild would have been five, and would remember her great-grandma.  In five years, my children would be 13 and 18, respectively.  She would have been able to see both of my kids reach adulthood and young adulthood.  

We would have had five more years to try to crack those apple and sweet potato pie recipes.

Five more years of everything I miss about her, and would miss about her even more five years from now.

So I try to hold onto the things that make me smile, the special moments that were our moments alone, that no one else shared. 

When I was growing up, my mother was a notorious prude when it came to topics like sex.  When I started my period, she handed me a book.  When I had questions about sex, she handed me a different book.  “Let me know if  you have any questions,” she said in a way that made it clear that questions were not welcome and would not be easily entertained. 

I had tons of questions, most of which were answered by the porno books and magazines I found under my brothers’ mattresses, or in Harold Robbins’ novels.

After she came to New York to help me with my ex-husband, my mother and I began having “girl talks.”  

Somehow, a floodgate opened up that I wasn’t expecting.  When I would come to Detroit to visit– after the kids were in bed and her favorite televangelists were off the TV — we would sit at the dining room table, Mom in her favorite chair and me in the chair next to it, and chit chat about woman stuff. 

And by woman stuff, I mean sex.  

And by sex, I mean the stuff you don’t usually discuss with your 70-something year-old mom. 

Mom did most of the chatting.   I was too busy most of the time being appalled.

And oh, boy, did Mom have some stories.

I was real good at listening — and laughing — but less so at sharing.   Once, she asked me very directly about my sex life with my ex-husband — after oversharing some info about my dad that I never needed to know — and I totally punted.  I gave her enough of a response to keep the “girl chat” thing going, but inwardly, I froze.   Talk to my mother, my Mom, about stuff like oral sex and anal sex and oh my God are you fucking kidding me?

And yet, in these months after her death, it’s the girl chats that make me feel the least like crying, that make me feel warm and special and happy, as if she was still here.

There is no “over it.”  Every day without her gets a bit easier, until it doesn’t.  I have dates embedded in my brain that will forever be difficult:  August 14, November 21 (her birthday), Thanksgiving, Christmas. 

Then there are just the times I want to call her, the random triggers that I suspect will never go away.  I recently traveled to Las Vegas and Miami within the same week.  When Mom was alive, I would always call her before I got on a plane and give her all my flight information, just in case.  I would call when I landed, to let her know I landed safely.  I would call when I boarded and de-planed again at my final destination.  And if I traveled someplace I’d never been to before, I would tell her all about the places I’d been, in hopes that one day I could encourage her to travel more, to see more of the world.

This time, I felt lost when I was traveling.  I kept texting my flight information to my sisters, since someone in the world should know where I was.  I wanted so badly after those recent trips to pick up the phone and call her and tell her all about Vegas and Miami.

After a few months, people stop asking you how you’re doing, are you OK.  People sort of expect you to get over it and move on.  And death is a subject most people want to avoid, anway. 

So, in case you were wondering:  I’m OK, except for those times I’m not.  I’ll never be over it.  I’ll never stop missing my Mom.  I’ll never stop wanting her to be at the other end of a phone line when I call, or rising up from her favorite chair when I enter her house.  It will never be OK that she’s gone, until I’m no longer here.

Other than that, I’m fine.

Leave Me Alone

July 19, 2009

Most days, I love Harlem. 

I love seeing the historic Apollo Theater every morning as I go to work.  I love passing it on my way to the gym. 

I love that the Magic Johnson Theater on 124th & Frederick Douglass Blvd. is still thriving.  When it opened, Magic wanted to prove that multiplexes in black neighborhoods could profit without attracting undue gang violence.  (Now, of course, he reps for Rent-a-Center, helping them bilk our communities out of millions of dollars.) 

I love that in Harlem, 6th, 7th and 8th Avenues are named for important black historical figures — Malcolm X (6th Avenue), Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (7th Avenue) and Frederick Douglass (8th Avenue). 

I love that there are two Starbucks on 125th Street, within a block of each other — one on 125th & Malcolm X Blvd., the other on 125th and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. 

But when it comes to exercising outdoors, I really, really hate being in Harlem. (more…)